THE MANY BRANCHES OF A MUSICAL TREE Doug Sahm

With an all-star tribute album finally
out, the Texas
troubadour’s getting a long-overdue revival.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

We take all kind of pills to give us all
kind of thrills

But the thrill we’ve never
known

Is the thrill that’ll get
you when you get your picture

On the cover of the Rolling
Stone

(- Dr. Hook, “On the Cover of Rolling
Stone”
)

 

“I’ve become
email buddies with Baron Wolman, the famous San Francisco photographer, and he told me
the story of the Rolling Stone cover
with me and Pop,” Shawn Sahm says excitedly. “Wanna hear it?”

 

Despite having
likely answered questions on the subject for the better part of his life, the
eldest son of Texas
rock icon Doug Sahm hasn’t yet tired of telling the story of his appearance on
the cover of the 23rd issue of Rolling
Stone
, from December 1968.

 

There, beneath
the title “Tribute to the Lone
Star State:
The Dispossessed Men and Mothers of Texas,” three-year-old Shawn sat in the
elder Sahm’s lap, father and son staring firmly at the camera from beneath the
brims of their cowboy hats.

 

“Apparently,
Baron had a studio back in the day in the Haight Ashbury with all the hippies,”
Shawn says with an excited laugh. “He told me he remembers looking out the
window that day and seeing Dad pull up in a Caddy for the photo shoot, and this
little kid hopped out with him. Baron says we hung out for a while, and at one
point he told me to go get in Pop’s lap and snapped a few shots. The rest is
history.”

 

‘68 was an
interesting year in Sahm’s storied career, which is celebrated on the recently
released Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to
Doug Sahm
, a 14-track homage to the man many consider to be the father of Americana music who died
ten years ago of a heart attack at age 58. In addition to the tribute record, a Doug Sahm biography penned by Jan Reid is in the works as is a new Texas Tornados CD and tour.

 

The portrait for
the Rolling Stone cover was taken in
the middle of Sahm’s five-year stint in San Francisco,
a brief hiatus from his home in Texas after an
arrest on marijuana possession at the Corpus
Christi airport in 1966. Sahm’s legal troubles not
only instigated his departure from Texas but also broke up the Sir Douglas
Quintet, the legendary Tex-Mex rockers whose 1965 hit single “She’s About a
Mover” earned them national acclaim and a spot on the hip music variety show, Shindig. Over the next 35 years, Sahm
developed a reputation as a genre-defying artist whose albums – some solo
efforts and others with a reunited Quintet as well as his Tejano rock group
Texas Tornados – borrowed equally from Latino, African-American and Anglo-American
cultures.

 

For California folk-rocker
Dave Alvin, who contributed a fantastic version of “Dynamite Woman” to the
tribute album, Sahm’s appearance on Shindig was the kind of watershed moment that comes along once in a lifetime.

 

“I was eight
years old and just remember looking at him and wanting to be exactly like him,”
Alvin says. “He
had long hair, but he wore a cowboy hat and a tailor-made jacket. He was this
cool combo of disparate things, and that’s really what he was musically. Most
people like to separate everything into easily defined categories, but Doug was
like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan in the sense that he saw connections
in music rather than differences.”

 

A fan of Sahm’s
music since seeing the Shindig telecast, Alvin’s
first encounter with Sahm was on tour with the Blasters in the early ‘80s when
they opened a few shows for a reunited Sir Douglas Quintet.

 

“It was a big
thrill to meet him,” he recalls. “After that, Doug started showing up at shows
when I played in Austin.
I remember I was in town around 1998 and ended up onstage with Doug at the
Continental Club during a Leroy Brothers’ show. It was basically closing time,
so the bartender announced that they were going to lock the doors and let us
play all night, so if anyone wanted to leave, they better leave now. We played
all these Guitar Slim and Junior Parker songs, stuff that Doug was really into.
That night was a big deal for me.”

 

While some of
the musicians who participated in Keep
Your Soul
– Charlie Sexton, Los Lobos, Greg Dulli and the Gourds, among
them – were, like Alvin, a generation or two younger than Sahm, others were his
contemporaries and often his collaborators. Long-time Sahm compadres Flaco
Jimenez, Al Gomez, Louie Bustos, Jack Barber and Augie Myers make appearances
on the album, as do fellow Texans Marcia Ball, Jimmie Vaughn and Delbert
McClinton, whose song “If You Really Want Me to I’ll Go” appeared on the Sir
Douglas Quintet’s classic 1969 sophomore effort, Mendocino.

 

“I think I met
Doug in the womb,” McClinton says with a laugh. “The first time I can recall
hearing of Doug was when he played a show in Fort Worth in ’62, I think. I missed the
show, but heard about it the next day. Everyone was telling me how I shouldn’t
have missed it. It’s one of the few shows I regret missing to this day.”

 

On Keep Your Soul, McClinton turns in a
rollicking version of “Texas Me” that the legendary Grammy Award-winning
singer-songwriter and Texas
native believes serves as a common touchstone between he and Sahm.

 

“I chose that
song ‘cause it’s got a bit of my story, too,” McClinton says. “Doug and I had a
lot in common. Doug’s music came from the same place I got mine, ‘cept he was a
little closer to the border and had more of that Conjunto music than me. Both
of us were walking encyclopedias of old songs from the ‘50s, so we always had a
good time together. Doug had fun with his music, and I’ve always tried to do
the same.”

 

Not all
contributors to Keep Your Soul played
it as close to the vest as McClinton and Alvin’s versions of Sahm’s songs.
Growing up in San Antonio
in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Alejandro Escovedo considered Sahm a mysterious hero of
sorts who “seemed to be connected to me because he was a white guy who
appreciated Anglo music but embraced Chicano music and Chicano culture, and I
was coming at it from the other direction. He was an idol, as much as Townes,
and Butch and Joe Ely.”  On “Too Little
Too Late,” Escovedo brings his ‘70s punk-rock roots to the recording – which,
apparently, didn’t sit well with some of Sahm’s former bandmates.

 

 “I knew that everyone involved would likely go
with the obvious choices, so I just wanted to find something that nobody had
really heard and see what I could do with it,” Escovedo explains. “We took a
different approach to it. We’d just made Real
Animal
and worked with Tony [Visconti], so I hear a little Bowie in it and
maybe a little Petty. I think that’s the vibe we were going for. I heard Shawn
ran my version of the song by Augie and the guys, and apparently they weren’t
to hip to my version or something.”

 

“I thought it
kicked ass,” Shawn Sahm says. “That was a really special song for my Dad and I
‘cause we wrote it together, but I thought Alejandro did a great job with it.
He took a total left turn with his version than what Dad might have done, but I
think he scored with it. Not everyone’s gonna play it straight on a tribute
record, and not everyone’s gonna be happy with the result. The main thing is
this was all done from the heart, and everyone on this record believed in it.”

 

For his own
track on Keep Your Soul, Shawn Sahm
pays tribute to his father with a reworked version of his classic “Mendocino,”
complete with a “Play it, Augie” call out to Quintet accordionist Augie Myers.

 

“Having to
choose one song was really hard. I recorded a few things, but at the end of the
day, that song just felt right to me,” the younger Sahm says. “Everyone brought
something to this record with their takes on Dad’s music, and I’m proud of
everyone who got involved. They did it for their love of Doug Sahm, and I
betcha he’s up there somewhere looking down on this saying, ‘My boys and my
compadres pulled it off.’ I can almost hear him now.”

 

 

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